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Three Levels of Bee Selection

When we think about breeding bees we need to think at 3 different levels or perspectives. First like all animals, bees are complete organisms in themselves, each with their own set of traits provided by their genes. But bees are never found living alone, they are always found living in colonies. With social living comes complexity and the synergy from cooperation. Finally, we have to consider how the entire population is connected in a genetic network.
Breeding bees is done on the level of individual queens and drones. But the characteristics of the colony depend on the combinations of these individuals. Just like in playing cards some combinations work better than others. This no doubt accounts for much of the variation in productivity between colonies.


The entire populations contains the hard earned genetic information of the entire species. This is the raw material for evolution to adapt bees to their environment. Gene frequencies change over time to adapt to changing conditions. Maintaining diversity insures that bees may be able to adapt to future changes as well.

Interestingly, what is bad for individuals and colonies, like diseases, can be good for the population. By eliminating the less fit individuals, the species is strengthened on the whole against pests.

Honeybee Colonies are Superorganisms

Aristotle said, “The whole is over and above it’s parts, and not just the sum of them”. What he was talking about is the synergy that emerges from combinations. There is no better example of this concept better than a bee colony.
Great hives come from great combinationsA colony is a superorganism, not just a single organism like a horse or cow. Queens normally mate with at least 10 drones, so a colony contains at least 10 times the genetic information in the form of DNA, as any single bee. It’s not hard to Breeding bees is like playing cardsimagine that some families of bees will manage better than others.The problem is, just like in playing cards, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate the pattern. The best we can do at the moment is to stack the deck with traits that we think are beneficial.


Africanized honeybee swarmHow can we breed superorganisms?

Natural queen cellI think this brings us to a current limitation of bee breeding. We can’t reproduce our best colonies in any reliable way. Because when we raise queens only one of the drones is represented, but the synergy of the group was lost.Breeding is always a gamble
We have been successful in controlling certain traits like hygienic behavior and color. But the mystery of the synergy which makes the very best colonies has not yet been solved.
This is why, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there has not been as much progress in bee breeding as there has been with horses or cows.
I don’t think this is an impossible problem to solve. It is now possible to analyze the DNA from wingtip clippings from queens and drones. Perhaps sometime soon, when the genome of the bee is better characterized and technology evolves, we may be able to optimize which drones to mate to which queens. I think in the future a lot of breeding will be done with the aid of the computer and biotechnology.


Honeybees in the age of the new biology

Advances in molecular biology will also make possible ways to transform honeybees which have never occurred in nature. It’s not hard to think of interesting things to do with biotechnology, like transferring beneficial traits from other species. Or inserting sequences into the bee genome, that would neutralize viruses or make the bees resistant to diseases.
But, as stewards of the bees, we have to be on guard against the technology getting ahead of our ability to predict the consequences. Beekeeping history is already filled with stories of good intentions gone bad. The importation of AHB to the Americas, the spread of varroa around the globe, and capensis taking over in South Africa are all examples of well meaning scientists and beekeepers doing unintentional harm

blind men and elephantThe further we study bees and genetics the deeper both subjects become. We are all like the blind men examining watson unveiling DNAhoneybees from our own point of views, from DNA to ecosystems but nobody has the complete view. Honeybees are one of the most complex systems known, and it is much easier to harm such a system than to improve it.
I love science, I want research to continue to learn the secrets of how life and honeybees operate. I believe using molecular biology to gather information for use in traditional breeding, will be a tremendous breakthrough in bee breeding. But I’m against genetically modifying bees at least until we get a whole lot smarter. We shouldn’t risk the future of the honeybee just because we’ve learned to do something clever.

The Future of Beekeeping

As beekeepers we all know how vital honeybees are toSpaceship Earth  the health and well being of mankind as well as the environment. What is remarkable is that such a small group of people have such a large control over the bees of the world. We already own the process of genetic control of the bees. By each beekeeper deciding what type of queens to keep in our colonies we are a selective force in the evolution of the honeybee species. We need to take our actions very seriously. But if luck is with us and with the wise use new scientific tools and the hard work of beekeepers we can be good stewards of these crown jewels of the natural world. As Margaret Mead once said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever does “


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